The Druck Report: From the ‘penthouse’ to the ‘outhouse,’ economic development is on the move — at your added expense.

The Druck Report: From the ‘penthouse’ to the ‘outhouse,’ economic development is on the move — at your added expense.

This storage spot — once part of a auto dealer’s service area at Riverside Parkway and West First Street — is the designated new home of industrial development for our community. It sits behind the Rome Floyd Chamber, which underwent thousands of dollars in upgrades for the very same reason last year. What’s different? Your SPLOST dollars will pay for this latest rehab project. Hometown photo.

 

Behold the soon-to-be headquarters of industrial recruitment in Rome and Floyd County. If the current “concept” holds, this one-time service bay for a car dealership that most recently was used for fire department storage — call it the “out house” — could become the base of recruitment efforts for the community.

You’ll pay for it through some of the millions of dollars of special tax revenue earmarked for real estate purchases and infrastructure improvements — even though this particular project never appeared on any special purpose local option sales tax menu put to voters.

John Druckenmiller, editor and publisher of Hometown Headlines Inc.

And never mind that this time last year, the finishing touches were being put on the six-digit upgrade to Rome Floyd Chamber office at 1 Riverside Parkway and Broad Street. Finished last April, the greatly enhanced chamber office was meant to “improve visitors and members experience and extend Southern Hospitality in a high-tech, high-touch way,” according to the media release. Call it the “penthouse.”

Said then-chamber Chairman Pete McDonald at the time:  “As the Rome Floyd Chamber continues to attract and entertain prospects for job growth, the new space gives an opportunity to present our best and to disseminate information through many forms of media. The newly designed Board Room speaks to the fact that the Chamber markets Rome to the world by the feature wall displaying the world map with uniquely artistic style.”

The project was funded from chamber resources; this next one will tap into SPLOST dollars. And that will be on top of the extra thousands of dollars from city and county budgets (i.e., your tax dollars) to break industrial recruitment out from the chamber into a separate entity.

So what changed? The easiest way to describe it is a coup by some city and county commissioners upset with the number of definitive prospects announcing warehouses and high-tech jobs in Rome and Floyd. Perhaps they were spoiled by the 1.25 million-square-foot Lowe’s distribution center in Shannon that took more than six years of “courting” to bring to the table. Or else Pirelli. Or maybe the repeated headlines out of Bartow County of industry after industry bringing new jobs and new buildings to the region — primarily because of easy and ample Interstate 75 access.

Did we blow it years ago by not pointing the interstate through Floyd County? As business legend Frank Barron has said for years — and repeats again in Sunday’s Rome News — the interstate was never headed this way. At best, it might have been been five miles closer.

If any “error” was committed in subsequent years, it was not copying what leaders did in Gainesville and Hall County — building a four-lane spur from I-85 to their door step (known  as I-985). Maybe whatever we call the 411 Connector next year or the year after will accomplish that — if it truly gains traction.

The I-75 trump card is just one of the challenges the Rome/Floyd economic development team has faced. Another was a hefty investment in up to 110 acres in Shannon, at Ga. 140 and Ga. 53. A beautiful site that is “pad ready,” there have been no takers despite continued tweaks and purchases and improvements. County commissioners are in panic mode over that because some hefty payments are coming due on the property.

So what’s the solution? Blame others for not being aggressive enough in courting new employers. Who cares if we have few incentives to dangle before them?

The real story here is a lack of government leadership. Rome and Floyd voters repeatedly have agreed to tax themselves an extra penny on each dollar spent to build a considerable pool of cash for industrial development sites, perhaps “spec” buildings, even extending the runway at Richard B. Russell Regional Airport/Towers Field to a state-leading 7,000 feet. Little of that has happened. The runway project — in development terms — is “shovel ready.” But even with the SPLOST dollars, it remains roughly $2 million  shy of current bids so the airport commission is turning to the federal government for possible assistance.

So where have all those special tax dollars gone? Hometown Headlines submitted an Open Records Request to both city and county governments last week, asking that question. What we learned:

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  • Three tracts adjoining the Shannon industrial site were purchased — two on the northeast side including one fronting Ga. 53 both along Plainville Road and the other on the western border. Overall property purchases for economic development from the $8 million raised by the 2013 SPLOST — $2.98 million. Leftover/still coming in: $5 million.
  • In the 2014 budget year, the County Commission had a $148,950 budget earmarked economic development. That included $25,000 for the chamber’s Partners in Progress program, $37,950 for the Greater Rome Existing Industries Association and $86,000 for economic development. The line item shows those funds were spent accordingly.
  • The following year, economic development was cut by $30,000. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the economic development budget was increased by $15,000 to $71,000 for an annual total of $133,950. The current budget year also has a total of $133,950 allocated with $11,163 already spent. So, again, all this talk about an economic development crisis fails to mention more government apathy (such as not ranking development needs ahead of other squeaky wheel projects when SPLOST dollars come in. Who makes that decision?)

Instead of leadership and investment, the solution was to move economic development from the chamber, commit even more tax dollars (directly and indirectly) into salaries and budgets, and now remodel a decades-old service bay to serve as the hub to landing new prospects when there’s barely any dust yet on the revitalized chamber building.

And the saddest part? Our governments can’t seem to say “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” fast enough when it comes to spending extra money to do the job the chamber had been doing — and doing well — for years. What’s worse, there isn’t a plan to operate the new development push beyond the first year. Evie McNiece, the best numbers person in local government, implored her fellow city commissioners to get more information on the latest development concept before blessing it.

They instead took the kumbaya path, the “fix it along the way” option and basically endorsed a concept that is going to cost taxpayers more this year and likely years to come. So how’s that “along the way” option working so far? All we’re seeing are increases in estimated budget expenses and a bid to tap into SPLOST dollars that shouldn’t be needed  anyway.

So what’s the solution? Leadership. That is, people who aren’t afraid to make the right decision even if it upsets colleagues. We need leaders to draft a comprehensive development plan, from buildings and acreage to tapping into our healthcare and education resources. Once that plan is in place, they then need to hire the right people — no relatives, friends or recent “advisers” — to solicit new industry.

Because when it comes to our community’s economic future, there is no “fixing it along the way.”

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